It always surprises me how entrenched people are on the subject of memorising music, especially with regard to pianists, and it was probably a mistake on my part to argue on Twitter for a relaxation in playing from memory in concert (and elsewhere) with a professional pianist whose attitude and approach to memorisation was inculcated from a young age and reinforced during professional training in conservatoire.
There are sound reasons for playing from memory and it should not be regarded simply as a virtuoso affectation (the ability to memorise demonstrates a very high degree of skill and application). It can allow the performer greater physical freedom and peripheral vision, more varied expression and deeper communication with listeners. But the pressure to memorise can also lead to increased performance anxiety – I have come across a number of professional pianists who have given up solo work because of the unpleasant pressure to memorise and the attendant anxiety. I have also heard of promoters who won’t book a pianist who doesn’t play from memory. To play or not to play without the score should surely be a personal artistic decision?
The custom of the pianist playing an entire programme from memory was established in the mid-nineteenth century, Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt setting a trend for concert pianists which persists to this day. Beethoven disapproved of the practice, feeling it would make the performer lazy about the detailed markings on the score; and Chopin is reported to have been angry when he heard that one of his pupils was intending to play him a Nocturne from memory. Today it’s considered de rigueur – for concerts, competitions and auditions – and is a significant aspect of the pianist’s skill set.
Somehow the idea persists that for a pianist to use a score in a performance suggests a lack of mastery or sufficient preparation
– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
Audiences too have fairly trenchant views on the subject and expect a professional pianist to play an entire programme from memory. It’s all part of the virtuoso ‘persona’, and it’s almost as if they think the pianist who uses the score is not up to the job; yet more and more I am seeing pianists in concert playing from the score or using an iPad (a more discreet way of playing from the score). Notable examples include Alexandre Tharaud, Artur Pizzarro and Richard Goode (whose wife turns the pages for him). For some pianists (and, I suspect, many more than who would admit it openly) memorisation can actually limit the range of repertoire performed in concert as some soloists won’t commit themselves to more than a handful of works each season because of the burden memorization places upon them.
Playing with the score on the music desk of the piano doesn’t mean you don’t know the music. Far from it – and if you watch a well-prepared pianist playing “from the score” you will notice that they don’t actually look at the music that often. The entire work may be memorised but having the score there can remove a layer of anxiety which may enable one to play better. I don’t think it should be seen as some kind of crutch or security blanket. It is also common to see a performer using the score for very complex contemporary or new music, and one rarely encounters collaborative pianists playing from memory.
In amateur piano clubs and meetup groups, attitudes to memorisation are amongst the most fervent I have ever encountered, perhaps because many members of these groups revere the great pianists and aspire to their skills, of which playing from memory is seen as the apogee of pianistic brilliance. To these people a “proper” pianist plays from memory. (Those of who do not, such as myself, are therefore “improper pianists”?!). Such is the need to prove oneself in the (sometimes) competitive environment of the piano club, that members will attempt to play from memory, often failing dismally because of 1) lack of proper preparation; 2) anxiety; 3) ego (this is the person who doesn’t even have a copy of the score in her bag, just in case, at the meetup event).
As a regular concert-goer, I am less concerned with how the performer transmits the music to me, and more interested in the performer’s ability to communicate the music, to weave stories, create myriad musical colours, provoke an emotional response (for isn’t that the primary reason why we go to hear and enjoy music?). If you get that right, nothing else should matter…..
For me there was something touching about seeing a great pianist play a Bach prelude and fugue using the score. Every wondrous element of this complex music is right on the page. It looks almost as beautiful as it sounds.
– Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
Header image: the author’s 1913 Bechstein model A piano with scores of music by Fryderyk Chopin, Joseph Schwantner and John Adams on the desk
The late great Sviatoslav Richter playing Schubert from the score